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Projet ERC Consolidator Grant

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Towards a Decentred History of the Middle East: Transborder Spaces, Circulations, Frontier Effects and State Formation, 1920-1946

BORDER 725269 - start date September 2017

Based on two epistemological notions – borderlands as histoire-problème (history-as-problem) on the one hand, and the co-production of borders between state and society (and ultimately the nation-state) on the other – our research project proposes to rethink the classical historical narrative about the emergence of the post-Ottoman Middle East. It takes its cue from transborder phenomena: on the one hand, the circulation of people, goods and ideas; and, on the other hand, the negotiation of ties between local actors and representatives of state authority.

In so doing, the project departs from normative approaches about bordering processes and state sovereignty. Although it pays attention to issues such as international treaties and diplomatic negotiations over the delimitation of boundaries following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and thus draws on concerns formulated by the disciplines of International Law and International Relations, our history-based research agenda is mainly inspired by methodological and epistemological debates among geographers, anthropologists and sociologists.

Our research is guided by three principle objectives, namely to offer:

  • A socio-historical analysis of state violence in the borderlands of the Middle East;
  • An examination of the capacities (agency) of border populations to create the history of the borderlands, nation-states, and the region as a whole; and
  • A study of the “frontier effects” based around notion of space and time, and involving various levels of observation (macro, meso and micro), in order to identify the ruptures and continuities evoked by the delineation of new borderlines in the Middle East.

The project posits that while the issue of the crisis of the territorial nation-state in the Middle East – including the loss of control of the state over border areas, territorial fragmentation, and increasing smuggling and trafficking of goods and human beings – remains, it cannot be simply understood as the “logical” consequence of an “artificial” or “imported” political construction. By looking at the social construction of international frontiers at the borderlands located between Turkey, Iraq and Syria in the interwar era, the project seeks to provide a much more holistic yet finely-grained understanding of the formation of the territorial state in the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War. Overall, this research programme aims at developing a theoretical reflection on borders in the Middle East and, ultimately, on the construction of nation-states, as seen from a transborder perspective in the region and beyond.